Neil McCormick: If we expect our artists to be paragons, we'll be very disappointed
If Ryan Adams can be ruined by claims of creepy behaviour, most of rock will go down with him, writes Neil McCormick
On the title track of a spartan masterpiece in 2003, Ryan Adams sang repeatedly "love is hell". Love, sex, bad relationships, bitterness, heartache and regret are pretty much the acclaimed Americana singer-songwriter's oeuvre.
Indeed, his wondrous solo debut in 2000 was titled Heartbreaker. A report in The New York Times suggests that Adams's own behaviour towards women has left a lot to be desired. Which rather makes one wonder if the reporters have actually been listening to his music.
Adams has been accused of unpleasant and manipulative behaviour towards women. Seven women, including ex-wife Mandy Moore, have aired grievances, asserting a pattern of dangling career opportunities while pursuing women for sex and retaliating if they spurned him.
The New York Times also claims the then-40-year-old musician exchanged flirty texts with a 15-year-old fan, although it gives no evidence he knew she was underage.
None of this represents criminal behaviour and Adams has denied the claims, while offering a reserved apology on Twitter "to anyone I have ever hurt, however unintentionally".
If it is not exactly a scandal on the scale of Harvey Weinstein, nevertheless the accusations are damaging, creating a sense that this so-called "sensitive singer-songwriter" is just another insensitive, over-privileged male.
The first thing to make clear is that we are talking about Americana singer-songwriter Ryan Adams, not Canadian rocker Bryan Adams. The two stars have joked about the confusion generated by their names in the past, occasionally playing each other's songs on stage. But Bryan is probably not seeing the funny side any more.
In his native US, Ryan Adams is among the most acclaimed singer-songwriters of his generation, although critical praise outstrips his sales. He is influential, but certainly not a superstar.
A multi-instrumentalist and music obsessive, Adams is incredibly prolific, with an output including 19 solo albums plus a collectable discography of EPs; vinyl-only singles; download-only demos; two books of poetry; numerous collaborations and side projects including "fake punk band" The Fingers.
When I interviewed him in Los Angeles in 2014, he showed me a huge database of unreleased recordings.
Describing the process of songwriting to me, he said: "It's recreation, it's craft, it's ritual. When I turn that faucet on, the water comes out. It's just like the flow of life."
Adams is one of those artists who arguably makes too much music for any kind of orderly career. When he released the swaggering Gold in 2001, he was widely acclaimed as the heir to Bruce Springsteen, but his own label refused to release his more sombre and downbeat two-volume follow-up, Love Is Hell, which he eventually put out independently.
He was often fractious with the media and gained a reputation for erratic and sometimes ill-tempered live performances, apparently fuelled by narcotics.
"I don't have any hobbies other than writing music, taking loads of drugs and reading," he said in 2004.
He subsequently brought his drug and alcohol use under control after being diagnosed with Meniere's disease in 2009 (a disorder of the inner ear that includes symptoms of tinnitus and vertigo), although he has a prescription for medical marijuana because it helps him sleep. "I'm not a 24-hour stoner," he insisted to me. "It's as needed."
I've interviewed Adams twice over the years. I found him to be incredibly smart and articulate, a deep thinker about creativity, a little bit goofy in his humour and obsessive about music and pop culture.
His love life has been colourful. He has dated a lot of actresses, models and musicians, including Winona Ryder, Parker Posey, Juliana Hatfield, Lindsay Lohan and Phoebe Bridgers, who is quoted in The New York Times discussing his allegedly manipulative behaviour.
"I've had relationships with very creative, dramatic, joyous people," is how Adams described his dating history in 2004. "Believe it or not, when you are working in this kind of environment, you don't really meet a lot of librarians."
Adams was married to actress-singer Mandy Moore for six years, from 2009 to 2015, and Moore asserts in The New York Times that he hampered her career opportunities throughout their marriage.
In January 2002, Adams's then-girlfriend Carrie Hamilton died of cancer, inspiring his Love Is Hell album. Adams described it at the time as a suicide diary.
"It's very victimised; full of ghosts; and there's a narcotic theme; and a lot of anger and resentment," he said. "To make that record, I had to write about the things I think but don't wanna say. Things that maybe shock yourself even more than other people. And that's hard to do, but worthwhile. I really thought it was my masterpiece.'"
I tend to agree. And I am not inclined to change my opinion if the writer turned out to be a deeply flawed human being. I am more inclined to think you can't make art without being flawed.
The #MeToo cause couldn't have arrived soon enough. Women have been getting a hard deal for most of history, the feminist movement has only really been gathering steam for less than 100 years, and the cracks finally appearing in the glass ceiling should surely be welcomed by all fair-minded people of every gender. Sexist behaviour is being called out, and men who perpetrate it have to wake up and face the consequences.
Women in the music business have certainly been undervalued, undermined and under-promoted. Adams's alleged behaviour, currying sexual favours in exchange for taking an interest in promoting women's careers, is almost certainly as rife in music as it is in every walk of life. But The New York Times piece doesn't accuse him of sexual crimes, just general creepiness.
I don't want to defend a jerk just because he is a talented jerk. But if having sleazy relationships with musical admirers is a career-wrecking crime, I suspect they are going to have to lock up half the rock and pop stars who ever stepped on to a stage.
Maybe Adams deserves to have his wings clipped. But do we really expect our artists to be paragons? Because if we do, we are not just going to be very disappointed, we are going to be stuck with a lot of mediocre art.